The Conspiracy

Bist du a Yid? [Are you a Jew?]

shabbat-candles

I feel lost in Ashkenazic culture. Outside of it, maybe? I’m not the only person who feels that way, I know I’m not—anyone who didn’t grow up with it, come from it, it’s a foreign land. Ashkenazic culture in the United States is like a Jewish default setting. You grow up outside the prescribed norm, you feel…out of place. It gets worse, when you grow up in secret.

The children in my grade school classes were all light-skinned, light-haired, and bright-eyed, whose families came from countries with pronounceable names. My father had an English surname (not the name I have now) and I was taught to present as just as white as my classmates. I didn’t know at five, or eight, or ten that this phenomenon is “passing.” My father, as ethnically mixed as my mother, had ‘lucked’ out, a relatively pale man with incredible blue eyes. My mother, not nearly as light, carried her own ethnic secrets; also handed down as a secret—the most secret of all being that she was Jewish.

On Sundays, when we knelt on the ‘prayer bar’ as I called it, hands clasped to forehead, heads bowed, as prayers were intoned, I was desperately aware that I felt out of place. We weren’t English, or even white. My father had grown up on a reservation for part of his childhood, his father’s tribe’s. My mother came from antecedents that were hushed, a family so terrified of discovery the hid their countries of origins from their own children, transmitting an unspoken statement that a Jewish name was tantamount to death.

I got older, and I left those kneeling prayers behind, and converted while going for my undergrad, the first time around. Years brought change. The older I got, the more I earned stories from surviving generations—stories of Shabbat candles lit deep in the house, curtains drawn. A barely remembered Pesach of my Grandmother’s, spent underneath her mother’s table, hidden by the table drape, in a locked house. I know very little about my forebears, only that few were Ashkenazic, if any were at all, and that my Great-Grandmother denied Jewish or Sephardic heritage to her death bed. On rare occasion, I meet people, who have been hidden, like my family. I understand them better than I understand anyone else I know. When you feel estranged from Jewish culture, you’re not the only one.

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One Older Response to “Bist du a Yid? [Are you a Jew?]”

  1. Karen Hansell
    October 22, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    I was born in Scotland. My mother comes from a long, long line of Scottish Catholics. My father was also born in Scotland in 1930, but his parents escaped a dismal life in Lithuania. They were Jews. My name would have been Levintal, but it was changed somewhere along the line to Scott. They came to Scotland because, believe it or not, it was a safe place to go to. I remember when I was little, the Catholic and Protestant kids would ask “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” My answer would be “I am a Jew.” The reply to that would be, “Weel, guid.” (Well, good.) And off they would run to question someone else. It was better to be a Jew than a Catholic or a Protestant, depending on who was asking! The Scots are a lot more tolerant than the Irish, and there may be some friction between the two major religions, but there is actually very little violence. I encountered more anti-semitism when I came to the United States. Most people here in the States assume I am 100% Scottish, so they feel comfortable making anti-semitic comments around me, or using phrases like “Jew someone out of a deal.” It can be quite uncomfortable if I say that I am half Jewish. If the States had been invaded by Hitler, I think things might have been different.

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